National Lutheran News

Former ELCA presiding bishop says it’s time to U.S. to leave Iraq

Herbert Chilstrom sent a lengthy e-mail to friends arguing for withdrawal

With support for the war in Iraq evaporating, except from among the ranks of the truest of believers in the conflict, the first presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) says it’s time for the U.S. to withdraw.
Dr. Herbert Chilstrom, who was the first to lead the 4.9 million member ELCA, says he was against the invasion of Iraq from the very beginning and believes the time has come to pull American troops out.

In an essay-length e-mail message to an undisclosed number of recipients, Chilstrom quoted from a message he sent to family members when the war first began. In it he said, “I’ve been to the Middle East too many times, and have read too much about that part of the world to feel good about the ultimate outcome of what’s happening. I fear we’re in for a long, long time of increasing terrorism.”

He added, “No one wants to be proven wrong. But in this case, I hope I will be.”

In his message, Chilstrom said, “It would be tempting for all of us who opposed the war from the beginning to gloat over our prediction of what would happen. But that would be pointless. The political and religious dynamics of the Middle East are too complex and the consequences of the outcome of this war are too serious for anyone to take pride in one’s opinion.”
Chilstrom quoted ELCA theologian Martin Marty, who asked the question, “At what point may, and must, some moral and religious voices be raised to call the continuing venture immoral?”

Said Chilstrom, “I think the time is now.”

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Here is the complete text of Chilstrom’s message:

In April of 2003 most Americans thought the war in Iraq would be short-lived and that the outcome would be total victory for President Bush and American forces. My family and friends must have thought I was the ultimate pessimist when I wrote a note to them at the time suggesting a different view:

“I’ve been to the Middle East too many times, and have read too much about that part of the world to feel good about the ultimate outcome of what’s happening. I fear we’re in for a long, long time of increasing terrorism. No one wants to be proven wrong. But in this case, I hope I will be.”

Now, instead of being part of a small minority who opposed the invasion of Iraq, I find myself linked with a strong and growing majority who question the wisdom in undertaking a war that appears to have no end in sight. It would be tempting for all of us who opposed the war from the beginning to gloat over our prediction of what would happen. But that would be pointless. The political and religious dynamics of the Middle East are too complex and the consequences of the outcome of this war are too serious for anyone to take pride in one’s opinion.

Where can we turn for help in looking at the larger picture? I find no better resource than the wisdom of the late Reinhold Niebuhr, one of America’s premier theologians of the last century. It was he who advised all preachers to prepare their sermons with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. Niebuhr was often referred to as a “theologian of public life.”
With flags waving everywhere and politicians of every stripe ending their speeches with appeals for God to bless America, Niebuhr reminds us that no nation is immune to the kind of self-aggrandizement that blinds us to our own faults:

“Patriotism is a high form of altruism when compared to lesser and more parochial loyalties; but from an absolute perspective it is simply another form of selfishness. The larger the group the more certainly will it express itself selfishly in the total human community. It will be more powerful and therefore more able to defy any social restraints which might be devised. It will also be less subject to internal restraints.”

Why is it that we think the United States is superior to all other nations on earth, that we can wield our military power in defiance of world opinion, that we can preside over the disintegration of another culture in the name of “enlightened self interest” (read: “We need their oil to fuel our economy”)? Niebuhr would suggest that it is because of that dark side of humanity that shows itself in an unhealthy pride that insists on putting ourselves on a higher pedestal than other nations.

Our problem is further compounded by the assumption of many that we are a “Christian nation” and, even more, by the comfort many take in having a president who claims to be a “born-again Christian” who prays to God for wisdom before starting a war. The sober reality is that we are not now and have never been a “Christian nation.” Most of our founding fathers believed in a supreme being who created the world and established moral order. But they were also humanists who were convinced that we are on our own in making the world a livable place. They would have reacted with shock by the suggestion that they were “born again” and had a personal connection to that divine being. Most of them were deists, including Thomas Jefferson, who constructed his own Bible with miracles, the crucifixion and the resurrection omitted. They believed that reason, dialogue, and a carefully-devised political process – not some ethereal connection with God — was the path to good and wise government.

Martin Luther encouraged personal piety in every believer. Yet, he saw the importance of separating religion from political process. With Turks threatening to overrun Europe he might well have called for a “born again” head of state to defeat the enemy. Instead, he recognized that it was essential to have persons of superior talent and good judgment to lead the state. He suggested that a wise Turk would serve the nation better than a Christian with poor judgment.

As much as anyone else, I want the United States to prosper and be at peace. But, along with many others, I fear that we are on a trajectory that could undermine our whole way of life. I’m sobered by Niebuhr’s prophecy:

“In every civilization its most impressive period seems to precede death by only a moment.”

Fortunately, Niebuhr wasn’t entirely pessimistic. Like a good theologian, and a good citizen, he saw hope in a changed attitude:

“One of the great resources of…faith for social achievement is the sense of humility which must result from the recognition of our common sinfulness. Reconciliation with even the most evil foe requires forgiveness; and forgiveness is possible only to those who have some recognition of common guilt.”

No, terrorists won’t suddenly turn their attention away from us if we admit our mistakes, own up to our limitations, and alight from our high horse. But we would, at the very least, win support from all those people and nations who have become disillusioned with the United States in the past several years. If they knew we needed them and respected them as equals we might once again have some strong allies in our conflict with those who are intent on destroying democratic nations and institutions.

We seem to have a large number of Americans these days who think that we will achieve greater moral integrity if we simply deny the stability and privileges of marriage to gay and lesbian persons and pass legislation that will make certain no woman will be able to have an abortion, no matter what contingencies may be involved. These are legitimate concerns and believers will differ in their stances on them.

Many of us, however, long for leaders who will see that the issues are broader and deeper. Will Durand, another shining light from the last century, looked at the world from the perspective of history. Durand wrote:

“Let us say humbly but publicly that we resent corruption in politics, dishonesty in business, faithlessness in marriage, pornography in literature, coarseness in language, chaos in music, meaninglessness in art.”

And let us also add that we resent any attempt to resolve international conflict by war until every possible avenue for a peaceful settlement has been attempted.

Martin Marty, reflecting on the war in Iraq, raises the question: “At what point may, and must, some moral and religious voices be raised to call the continuing venture immoral?”

I think the time is now.

Herbert W. Chilstrom